Register Saturday | September 22 | 2018

Murray Hill and the Art of Haphazard Theatre

A Performance

Fez is one of the most important performance spaces in New York City. Located in a basement on Lafayette Street, its show space is about the size of a McDonald's. The ceiling is low, the chairs are back-breaking and the heating system is aggressive, to say the least. Drinks here are not as overpriced as at the uptown cabaret clubs, but the food consists of wretched eighties New American glop from the Time Café-the restaurant upstairs that has been nearly empty every time I've walked through en route to the back staircase. (I assume it is able to stay open only because Fez packs in the hipsters.) A show at Fez or at one of its compatriots-PS 122, the Westbeth, Dixon Place-makes you suffer for your interest in art. And apparently, the artists suffer too. As last night's headliner, Mr. Murray Hill, proclaimed, "It's been a great night! None of you sent back your food!"

Lame joke. And that's Hill's shtick. The jokester bills himself as the "hardest working middle-aged man in show business." He's a sweaty, pudgy Borscht Belt comedian who tells punny jokes, hits on women in the audience and performs with a cabal of scantily clad ladies. What makes all this funny-and not tiresome-is that Murray Hill is a drag king (a woman dressed as a man). In this case, the illusion is rather striking. Hill looks like a man and usually dresses as a man even when he's not on stage. (Last week, he came to my friend Vestal's book party wearing his trademark moustache.) Murray is a typical Fez act: gay or the object of gay obsession. The club is really into drag; other than Murray Hill, it's showcased Kiki & Herb, Lady Bunny and Holly Woodlawn. Joan Rivers has also performed at Fez, and we all known she's more or less a drag queen.

He's a sweaty, pudgy Borscht Belt comedian who tells punny jokes, hits on women in the audience and performs with a cabal of scantily clad ladies. What makes all this funny-and not tiresome-is that Murray Hill is a drag king (a woman dressed as a man).

Like Kiki & Herb and Rufus Wainwright, Murray Hill is trying to use Fez as a launch pad to Carnegie Hall (or HBO). His recent Christmas show was an tremendous hit, landing him on the front page of the New York Times arts section under the headline "Meet Downtown's New 'It' Boy."

All I have to say about that label is, Harrumph. Murray may have a great gag. He's named after the blandest neighbourhood in Manhattan, he looks like a cross between Herb Tarlek and Milton Waddams, and ... he's a GIRL!

But he's all idea; the character is not fully formed, and the back story is murky and inconsistent. Murray is a monologist, so in addition to his shtick, he tells tales of his woeful life. The night I saw him, he told a long story about headlining at the IHOP in Vegas back in 1972. One stormy evening, as he was trying to amuse an audience of four, 750 Japanese tourists poured in. Murray killed that night. One of the tourists took him to Japan, where he was a hit. Twelve years later, that same Japanese promoter decided that Murray should be a figure skater. Apparently, Murray was then twenty-five (making him thirteen at the time of the IHOP gig). He failed to make the Olympic team because he refused to wear tights; he wanted to wear his (trademark) suit instead. Where is the story going? Turns out it's leading up to Murray Hill strapping on roller blades and performing the routine he was refused in Sarajevo. "Flashdance ... What a Feeling" started blaring and Murray zipped around Fez. It reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite's talent-show performance: a show-stopping sight gag.

Yet while hilarious in parts, this story is not just implausible, it's impossible. I don't need my comedians to be logical, but they do need to be aware of the details. Kiki, who is Murray's closest relative in the performance-drag family, existed beyond the sketch. Every element of her long stories was chosen because it was essential to who she was as a character. Murray needs to go further into Murray-and further away from Kiki. At its worst, the IHOP-to-Japan-to-Sarajevo story, replete with "ladies and gentlemen"s punctuating every paragraph, felt like a parody of a Kiki & Herb monologue.

Where Murray Hill succeeds is as a master of ceremonies, presiding over the show and its audience like a kindly Benny Hill. He leers, but you know it's a joke. There's nothing sinister about Murray, so the show is truly in good fun. (And unlike Kiki, he treats his hecklers like class clowns, not terrorists.)

Nor is a Murray Hill show all about Murray; it's half Murray, half burlesque.

Nor is a Murray Hill show all about Murray; it's half Murray, half burlesque. The night I saw him, he was accompanied by the Wau-Wau Sisters and Dirty Martini. Ms. Martini is a Rubenesque stripper, and her fan dance was outrageous: epic, dirty, gaudy, awesome. The Wau-Wau sisters were the highlight of the night, though. For their first number, they wore fur bikinis and sang a song that allowed them to say "cunt" a lot. For their second number, they dressed as clowns and mime-danced to a raspy recording of "Send in the Clowns." After "maybe next year" was sung, the two clowns stood there forlorn, shaving cream smeared on their faces. That in itself was hysterical, but then the music started up again-rollicking trumpets and piano-and the clowns began to strip. The tease ended with them ripping off their polka-dot jumpsuits to reveal multicoloured clown-hair merkins.

Murray's show wasn't perfect. It wasn't even tight. I think that much of his self-deprecating humour-bashing his own jokes, bashing the abilities of his pianist and trashing the room with lines like "I'm not gonna hang myself tonight; the ceiling's not high enough in this shithole"-is just an attempt to cover up the show's haphazardness. This is what you get from a lot of "downtown," "experimental," "underground" theatre. Thank God. For years, Fez has been a laboratory for insane acts that have gone on to be celebrated by mainstream critics and fans. When I heard Fez will be closing in March-the rumour is that it will be transformed into Manhattan's 782nd "bottle service" club-I was saddened. Where will we find the clowns?

When Ted Gideonse was seven, he saw Richard Harris in Camelot. He doesn't remember any of it. Alan Cumming in Cabaret, however, is embedded in Ted's hippocampus. Ted has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. (I Am) The Fourth Wall appears monthly.